Foreign cultures and modernization are two factors behind changes in the consumption patterns of Indonesians. The mushrooming cafes and restaurants offering fast food and international menus are slowly pushing nutritious and spicy local food aside.

This is happening despite the fact that by consuming local food we are helping to conserve the culinary traditions of the archipelago and also protect the cultural and natural heritage of Indonesia.

This is what prompted Charles Toto, an indigenous Papuan chef, to create recipes that use local ingredients. As a Papuan, Charles feels the need to conserve the traditions of his ancestors through Papuan culinary products which have been increasingly coming under threat as time passes.

Serving typical Papuan dishes, such as sago, which many deride as being too redneck, has actually allowed him to travel the world over.

Unlike other chefs who cook in gleaming kitchens, Charles likes to cook in forests. Chato, as he is fondly called, would gather the ingredients directly from the forest and cook using environmentally friendly cooking equipment. He often used heated stones, the traditional way of cooking in Papua.

By serving Papua food with ingredients harvested straight from nature, Charles also want to spread the message of how important forests are in Papua as a source of livelihood. Forests provides what humans need to survive. The traditional way of processing food also becomes part of the cultural identity of Indonesians that needs to be preserved.

To learn more about how Charles Toto began his career as a cook and his journey to conserve the environment and culture through traditional cuisine, The Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) interviewed the man who is better known as the Jungle Chief, on September 29, 2021.

How did you first become interested in cuisine?

I started learning about the world of cooking from my mother. I watched what why mother do when she is cooking, especially since she had studied at a girl’s school that was specifically for women in Papua.

At this school they were taught various skills that were useful when they became housewife, including cooking. I myself went to a Vocational High School in Jayapura,  majoring in cuisine in 1993 and graduated three years later.

In 1997, I joined a travel agent and was appointed as a cook for guests visiting the inland regions of Papua. The favorite destinations for the visitors were Wamena, Asmat, Biak, Yapen, Manokwari, and Raja Ampat, so I mostly cooked in forests or in remote tribal areas in Papua.  After 11 years, I decided to establish a cooking community that uses ingredients taken directly from nature. 

Is there an interesting story behind the  “Jungle Chef” title?

Jungle chef was actually how my boss at that time called me. They gave me that title because my cooking activities were mostly conducted in forests, beaches, and other tourist sites.

How did you start to cook using ingredients from the forests?

During trips to tourist destinations, we usually serve our guests canned food or other fast food. But I realized that the packaging of these food ended up as waste that were then left in the forest.

Out of that concern, I started to look at ways how I could cook without leaving waste in the forest. As a starting point, I began to use the containers of the fast food as my cooking equipment. For example I used the tin from canned tuna to prepare sago bread.

Then, I tried to make use of the food that could be gathered directly from nature as ingredient in my cooking. Based on that experience, I then decided to consistently apply the concept of cooking that was environmentally friendly, up until now.

What is the difference between cooking at the restaurant and in the forest?

In forests, we must be creative. That differs from cooking in restaurants where there are standards that must be followed, such as prioritizing foreign recipes. It is very rare that local food becomes part of the main dish.

When cooking in the forest, we create our own recipes and combine them with local flavors for breakfast, lunch and diner. For breakfast we usually serve sago with cheese and meat. We create our own recipes for our guests.

Based on your experience in exploring forests to cook, what is the conditions of forests in Papua at present?

Many forest areas have become public spaces — space for a group of people for their business and industrial expansion, and land conversions have. The functions of the forest as a source of livelihood for the indigenous communities have now changed in line with the growth in palm oil plantations. As a result, the community’s living style has also changed. They lost their  natural resources and source of food.

While traveling to various areas in Papua, have you seen many palm oil plantations?

Before many large corporations entered Papua, we could often travel for natural tourism freely from Merauke to Boven Digoel. Forests and nature were still very much safe. But now, all that have changed. We can no longer visit areas that were our natural tourism destinations because they are now managed by companies so that only particular groups can access them.

As forest areas dwindle, is your culinary exploration and living space disturbed?

We once conducted a mapping to know which areas are under the control of companies that manages the forests. We found out that the forests were dwindling in terms of surface because they were being continuously exploited.

As part of the Papuan community that really depends on forests, I realized that forests are actually a source of livelihood. If the forests continue to be cleared, of course the lifestyle of the Papuan communities would also change. 

Forests provides everything we need to survive. That is the value that I uphold as a cook who carries the title of “Jungle Chef”. For me, forests are like markets for Papua, but without the need to spend any money.

What are the specific cuisine of Papua that Indonesians are not yet familiar with?

There are many traditional Papuan dishes that people don’t know about. Traditional food often carries the stigma of being food for the hillbillies. Papuan themselves know about their culinary traditions but many of them do not preserve the recipes that had been handed down from generations because of that negative stigma.

For example, the fish in black sauce recipe from Youtefa Bay, or the clam and sago that is cooked in bamboo tubes. Other unique recipes include the Kerudu made with gnetum or melinjo leaves. These three recipes are examples of authentic Papuan recipes that are now rarely served.

There is a degradation of eating and consumption patterns that is making Papuan food less appealing, even among Papuan themselves. I think that globalization, with the entry of food from other regions into Papua, has been quite influential.

For example, when we reached self-sufficiency in rice production in Papua, the life and living space of Papuans also changed because in reality, rice is not a staple food for Papuans.

What are the constraints of cooking in forests?

For those who have never experienced cooking in forests, they may think that the challenges are many, including in making fire and because of locations that are far from any human settlements. But for me, the challenge is the weather. If it rains, we would have difficulties finding wood for our fire and ingredients from the forest to cook.

What are the challenges in preserving the Papuan culinary tradition?

The most difficult challenge is changing the mindset. That is actually a collective responsibility. I always share my experience with young people that I crossed paths with , so that their love for local food would grow. Local food such as sago and various roots are not only just staples of our life but they are also part of our culture and identity.

If more and more Papuans no longer eat sago, we should then reflect about the cultural traces of our ancestors and the history of their habits that are now increasingly being discarded.

Talking about young Papuans, how can we get them involved in safeguarding nature and initiate a cuisine that is based on natural ingredients from the forests of Papua?

I always take myself as an example. A number of  globally well known chefs have come from far away to learn about local Indonesian food and cook them. I have had the opportunity to go around the world, visiting Italy, the United States, the Netherlands, and other countries because I introduced Papuan cuisines.

Papuan cuisine has its own unique characteristics that are not found anywhere else in the world.  Cooking village food that is often said to be for country bumpkins, has flown me around the world. We have to be able to depend on where our feet stand.

How can Papuan food be made as popular as food from other regions?

It is true that the ingredients in Papuan food are not as rich as those of other regions in Indonesia, but we have a different way of cooking because we entirely depend on nature. One way is by cooking with heated stones. We dig a hole to cook, line it with grass, fill it with large stones that had been heated in a fire, then put the food to cook on it.

Roots are usually at the bottom, then vegetables and lastly, meat. Everything is then covered with banana leaves and hot stones. The juice that comes from the meat then permeates the vegetables and roots underneath, making them flavorful. For me, cooking with hot stones is cool!

What is the future of Papuan cuisine and forests?

I am optimistic that there will be more people who will seek and wait for the opportunity to taste Papuan cuisine. My hope is that forests can become some sort of restaurant and also a living space for us all. Conserving nature and traditional food is important for the future of Papua.

How long are you going to cook with natural ingredients from Papua?

I will continue to cook as long as forests exists, that they are not cleared by rich people and big companies. Everybody needs forests because they are a source of livelihood. Stop issuing permits to companies that are only exploiting forests for their timber and foroil palm.

For the future, I also hope that many more young people are willing to learn about the origin of their culture and our traditional food. The ancestral tradition in food preparation must be preserved as part of our identity 

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